x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Body slams in the flesh

Professional wrestlers from around the world, including several from the Middle East, will compete in Kuwait in February.

Kuwaiti youngster Yousef Mujeen displays his WWF memorabilia collection at his home of Jabriya, Kuwait.
Kuwaiti youngster Yousef Mujeen displays his WWF memorabilia collection at his home of Jabriya, Kuwait.

KUWAIT CITY // Hulk Hogan and spandex may be absent, but The Hawk, The Arabian Giant, Joe Legend, body slams, bad storylines and devoted fans will all be in Kuwait next year as professional wrestling comes back to the country. After an 11-year absence, 16 wrestlers from 11 different countries will compete for the new East Wrestling Championship (EWC) on Feb 19. Kuwaiti wrestling fans, including Fahad Jazza, are eager to see the pros in their country.

"People say it is the second most watched event on television," said Fahad, a student at Abdullah Al Mubarak Al Subah High School. "Wrestling has a lot of fans." Mofeeda al Aradi, the general manager of ATW International, which is organising the event, said the competition will attract a large local fan base. The tournament will need strong support to fill the venue's 20,000-seat stadium. Ticket sales have been encouraging, with more than 7,000 sold already. If the event succeeds, the organisers hope to make it an annual fixture that will incorporate a tour of the Gulf's major cities.

Fahad is optimistic. "All of Kuwait is talking about this. We are looking forward to seeing a real match, not like on TV. Now, I can watch it with my own eyes." The fans will see the EWC champion crowned after three nights of fighting at Salmiya Sports Club. While some fans are pleased to see live wrestling, others have criticised the line-up. The fight card lists wrestlers who are not contractually tied to the major federations - freelancers - so the most famous US stars will be missing. Instead, they will come from such countries as Mexico, India, Samoa, Austria and from across the Middle East.

"When I got the news that they are coming to Kuwait in 2008, I was very interested," said Yousef Mujeem, a student at the Gulf English School and a wrestling fan. "But since I saw the list of wrestlers, I'm not really excited," he said, while showing off a vast display of memorabilia. "I noticed one wrestler, he's American - Gangrel. He used to manage my favourite wrestlers back in 1997: the Hardy Boys." And "I know Kurgan because he's the guy in 300," he said, referring to the giant man who was beheaded by King Leonidas in the recent film.

Also at the promotion was Joe Legend, a long-haired Canadian who tips himself for the title. Legend has fought in what he calls the "major league" of professional wrestling - the US-based World Wrestling Entertainment. The current holder of the WWE Championship, Edge, was one of his students. Legend holds second-degree black belts in kung fu and karate, and has even tried hook fighting, an underground martial art in which the aim is to break your opponent's bones. With experience like that, he is qualified to assess the competition. He said the fighters in the line-up were "people who can maintain a full-time living in this business without a major contract, which means they're good - they're in demand".

The show will also provide a platform for Arab talent. The Hawk, Nour Loubnan and The Ring Unbreakable come from Lebanon and The Arabian Giant will represent Palestinians. Fahad al Salem, also known as the Gulf Tiger, will give the local fans someone to cheer for; he is of mixed Saudi-Kuwaiti descent. Al Salem is the product of ATW International's bid to create a local wrestling star by sponsoring him to travel and train internationally.

Al Salem said the EWC is better than the WWE because it forbids the over-the-top theatrics seen in the US. Wrestlers there commonly produce weapons, fight in steel cages and act out ludicrous storylines that have included a woman giving birth to a hand and a fight at a funeral. The last time Kuwait played host to a major international wrestling tournament was when WWE (then known as the WWF) performed in 1997. The tour's memorable moment came when Big Van Vader of the WWF roughed up Bassam al Othman, host of the local television show Good Morning Kuwait.

Vader reacted violently after al Othman asked if wrestling was fake in a television interview. "Does this feel fake?" the wrestler growled at the terrified host after grabbing him by the shirt collar. The aftermath proved the attack was not staged. Vader was arrested and charged with assaulting the host, and al Othman sued the WWF for using footage of the incident in a promotional video. Joe Legend responds more calmly when asked if wrestling is real. "That's a broad question. If I say 'yes' then I'm not taken seriously. If I say 'no', then people say: 'Oh, well then it's phoney - this guy is an idiot.' jcalderwood@thenational.ae